MISSOULA, Mont. – One mile west of Big Sky High School, just off a busy urban street is a farm. Cars rush by cattle nonchalantly grazing out in a pasture, a wheel line spits water across a hay field and high school age students are milling around, brushing off show cattle and doing chores.
Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Agriculture Education and Industrial Technology Center is a 100-acre piece of ground farmed entirely by students enrolled in Missoula’s agriculture education program.
Primarily the farm has worked at producing show animals – sheep, pigs and cattle bred to be competitive in a show ring. Students can buy animals from the farm, show them through FFA and then retain ownership and start their own little herd.
“If they are a good farmer, students can often pay for a year of college, if not more, by raising animals here at the school farm,” explained Tom Andres, an agriculture education teacher in Missoula.
Missoula is one of Montana’s most urban cities and most kids enrolled in the FFA program do not come from an agriculture background. The school farm is an opportunity for students to learn hands-on about food production.
“This place gives kids a chance to see what it is like to work on a farm. We are about the largest pork producer in Missoula County,” stated Andres.
Recently, the school farm added a meat processing facility to their already impressive agriculture center. The one-million-dollar building was funded through a Bond put out by the city of Missoula. The facility, which includes a state-of-the-art smoker and scalder, was designed by Andres. The building promotes safety, cleanliness and efficiency all in a learning environment.
Andres explained that they are marketing meat from conception to consumption because all the animals processed in the facility are born and raised on the school farm. He went on to emphasize the animals on the farm never experience a bad day as they are handled in a low stress, comfortable environment starting day one.
In addition, animals on the school farm are raised in the most sustainable way possible. The farm uses brewer’s grain from three different local breweries to feed out the steers and they also have a relationship with the local food bank and the Montana Food Network. If either place has food that is about to go bad, they send it over to the school farm. Andres mentioned it is not uncommon for them to get an entire semi load of produce at a time.
“We call ourselves urban farmers because we use a lot of Missoula’s [excess produce] to feed our animals,” Andres says. “We can go months without ever having to buy grain.”
A key objective of the meat processing facility will be to increase profit margins for the farm. Because most of the animals on the farm are owned by students, any profits they generate belongs to said students. The school farm will now be able to purchase the animals directly from the students at a premium. The farm’s carbon footprint is small because the meat they process will be entirely locally sourced, adding value to the finished product. Currently, students are working on building a food truck, so they will have the ability to market their processed meat directly as well.
Starting next school year, Andres will offer a meat processing class to the students. Students will go through extensive safety and handling training before they actually get to process an animal, but the goal is to eventually have students involved in the entire process. The students will earn a ServSafe Certification after they complete the class which has the potential to open up countless job opportunities.
This new meat processing facility and associated class embodies the true mantra of career and technical education. While in the class, students will learn business and marketing skills, how to properly run equipment and a true, hands-on education in animal processing. Students will leave with job ready skills that will give them a leg up in the job market.
Eventually, Andres would like to see the meat processing facility in a position where they can pay the students for their work. However, Andres proposes a unique approach as he would like to pay the students by the product, not the hour, so they can learn and come to understand the value of hard work while gaining appreciation for a job well done.
Looking ahead, the farm plans to purchase cull-cows from the local sale yard in Missoula so students in the meat processing class can learn how to identify and practice creating cuts of meat on the whole carcass. After, the meat will be ground up into hamburger which can be sold at an affordable price to MCPS for use in feeding lunch to its 8,000 students.
Students enrolled in agriculture education in Missoula have gotten to learn about farming processes, but now they have the opportunity to follow a product all the way to the table. In a time when consumer transparency is key, it is important for people to understand where their food comes from and the students enrolled in Mr. Andres’ meat processing class are now in a position to go forth and educate others.